Eric and I are looking for the best donuts in Portland, so we started this little series called the Portland Donut Crawl. So far, it’s been pretty awesome, as we’ve eaten our way around the city, tasting some really delightful (and some really horrible) treats. We started with Tonalli’s, Pip’s, and Blue Star. Then came Donut Byte Labs, Annie’s, and Staccato Gelato.
For the third installment of this series, we tasted Sesame Donuts, Helen Bernhard Bakery, and Rocking Frog Cafe. Here we go!
6990 Southwest Beaverton Hillsdale Highway
What we spent: $6.65
What we got: Butternut Cake, Sesame Cake, Chocolate Honey Dip Cake, Blueberry Cake, Old Fashioned Glazed, Maple Bar, and Portland Kreme (I’m guessing at the name of this last one)
Best of the bunch: Butternut Cake and Blueberry Cake
This shop is a bit outside the city (about 6 miles southwest of downtown), so it loses points for proximity. But it wins those points back for being open 24 hours a day! Let’s hear it for all day sweet treats! Once again, we have a shop that isn’t going to dazzle you with its impressive interior. It’s your basic diner with booths, a counter, and shelves of donuts. Something that sets them apart from your run-of-the-mill donut shop? The donuts are fried in a zero trans fat oil, so I suppose we can feel a little healthier about eating them?
Eric put in a few requests for donut varieties when I made a run to Sesame, and then the cashier and the woman behind me in line offered up some suggestions as well. That’s how we ended up with a Maple Bar and what I think was called a Portland Kreme (proof that I should never go to the donut shop on my own if I need to remember the names of the treats). The Maple Bar probably had the best maple frosting I’ve tasted in my limited maple donut tasting experience, but the actual donut was pretty bland. The Portland Kreme is best described as a sugar rush that tastes a bit like Fall. It’s a raised donut filled with some sort of sweet cream, and topped with a maple frosting and caramel drizzle. Insanity. It didn’t taste bad, but I think eating the entire donut would have made my teeth fall out. The Old Fashioned Glazed was good. As Eric said, it’s hard to mess up an old fashioned donut, and it was everything he expected it to be. Then we got to the cake donuts, which are always my favorites. And the consistency of these cake donuts was spectacular. They were nice and fluffy, crumbly, and not as oily as traditional cake donuts. The Sesame Donut was the one wild card in this bunch. It’s an ode to the owner’s Middle Eastern heritage, and is a cake donut dipped in toasted sesame seeds. It wasn’t bad, but it kind of tasted like eating a handful of sesame seeds, rather than a delicious donut. The donut tasted good, but sesame seeds wouldn’t be my topping of choice. The Chocolate Honey Dip wasn’t quite as flavorful as I wanted it to be, but it did have an excellent consistency. The true standouts were the Blueberry Cake and the Butternut Cake. The Blueberry was really fluffy, and tasted exactly like a blueberry muffin. It was really lovely. I didn’t get a really great idea of what the Butternut Cake donut actually was, but what I do know is it was awesome. From what I could tell, it’s a classic cake donut dipped in some sort of cinnamon crumble. Delicious, folks.
The verdict? It’s far away, so we probably won’t find ourselves dining on Sesame Donuts on the regular, but there were definitely some winners in the bunch. Plus, we could get our donut fix any hour of the day.
Helen Bernhard Bakery
1717 NE Broadway Street
What we spent: $2.19 (donuts are half-priced on Sundays)
What we got: Blueberry Cake, Crumb Cake, Old Fashioned, Cinnamon Sugar Cake, Cake with Maple Frosting, Raspberry-Filled Glazed
Best of the bunch: None were winners, but if we had to choose, the Cake with Maple Frosting
What to say about Helen Bernhard Bakery…I had read some good reviews about the donuts there on Yelp, and since they are half-priced on Sundays, we opted to visit on a Sunday morning. Now, I think a general rule of thumb for a person working at a bakery is that they have to be friendly. I mean, if you are the first person someone interacts with in the morning, you need to be nice. That was not the case here. While there were some lovely, friendly folks working behind the counter, we ended up with the not-so-much-of-a-morning-person-lady. So when we asked questions about what things were, we didn’t get great answers, and we both left feeling like we wouldn’t care to return.
Aside from the lackluster service experience, the donuts were bad. The Blueberry Cake (typically one of my favorite donuts) was really slimy and tasted like fake blueberry flavoring (like the kind used in candy). The Crumb Cake was really sweet and tasted mostly like coconut. It wasn’t terrible, but I didn’t want more than the bite I took. The Old Fashioned, which we previously thought couldn’t be ruined, was awful. In fact, the only note I took in my meticulous tasting notes was, “YUCK.” So there’s that. The Cinnamon Sugar Cake, which is another favorite variety of mine, was so dry that it was almost like just eating cinnamon out of the jar. As we ate this one, Eric said, “Give me a Pip’s cinnamon sugar any day.” The Cake with Maple Frosting was probably the best of the bunch, but we still didn’t eat more than the bite we had for tasting. It was more moist than a typical cake donut, and very light, but definitely not excellent. The Raspberry-Filled Glazed was our wild card here. We asked for the best donut in the shop, and this is what they recommended. Now, we probably could have made four sandwiches with the jelly inside that donut. It was insane. The jelly was tasty, and perhaps they used that much jelly to mask the bad taste of the donut.
Eric probably summed it up best. “I’ll just say this: I don’t ever want to go back there.”
Rocking Frog Cafe
2511 SE Belmont Street
What we spent: $7
What we got: Cinnamon (2), Chocolate (2), Maple, and Vanilla
Best of the bunch: No real winners here, but if I had to pick, Maple.
This was one of the weirder donut experiences of my life.
Rocking Frog Cafe is a cute little cafe in what appears to have once been a house on the east side of Portland. It has a parking lot, which is kind of magical in the city, so I was pretty excited about that. The inside of the cafe is cute and homey (and kind of reminded me of a much smaller Common Grounds, for those of you in Lexington). They serve sandwiches and coffee, and are clearly very proud of their donuts, judging by the enormous banner advertising their hot donuts. After looking at photos of their donuts on Yelp, and learning that they make donuts to order, I was expecting a somewhat Pip’s-like experience.
And that’s where the disappointment began.
It took approximately 20 minutes for them to make my donuts. And I’m not going to complain about that because I was there around 1 pm, and they were in the process of filling some lunch orders at the time. But I feel like you need to know that you aren’t going to get your donuts quickly, in case you are just popping in to grab some in a hurry. But that’s fine. I’m not concerned about waiting a while for something really good.
So, after 20 minutes, they brought out my 6 hot, fresh donuts. In a paper bag. All stacked together. Completely smooshed (the internet is telling me that “smooshed” isn’t a word, but it is truly the only way to describe what happened to my donuts). It was almost as if no one had ever ordered donuts to go before, and therefore they didn’t have a box. I took a picture of all the donuts squished together in the bag to show you how silly it was, but the donuts also broke my camera card.
Let me explain. I took the bag of hot, smooshed donuts out to my car, took a photo of the smooshed donuts in the bag, took a photo of the outside of the Rocking Frog Cafe, and then drove home, where I arranged the smooshed donuts on a plate in an attempt to make them look somewhat appetizing. And then I tasted them. After tasting those donuts, I put my camera card in my computer, and all of the photos I took looked like this:
So, those donuts broke my camera card. I have no other explanation. I went back and took more photos of the partially eaten donuts so you could still see them (and trust me, these partially eaten donuts don’t look much different than the squished donuts I was given).
Anywho, back to how the donuts tasted. Bad. They were so bad. Biting into a warm donut should be a magical experience. This was comparable to drinking a bottle of oil with a little cinnamon and sugar sprinkled on top. With my first bite, I thought, “What is that weird flavor? I recognize it, yet I can’t call it a spice or a sweetener. No. That’s oil.” That is literally the only thing I could taste. Oil, oil, oil.
Sidenote: All of that oil leaked through the donut bag, which was leaning against my leather purse, which is now sporting large oil stains. Insert super sad face here.
So, I put these very bad donuts aside to let Eric try them when he got home from work.
Here’s the surprise: Six hours after buying hot, fresh donuts, they tasted a little better. They still tasted mostly like oil (Eric agreed), but if you really focused, you could discern the chocolate, maple, vanilla, and cinnamon flavors. But that didn’t eliminate the super crunchy outer crust, the overwhelming feeling of oil taking over my arteries, or the general lacklusterness of the donuts.
You lose, Rocking Frog Cafe.
The winner of this round of donut tasting was Sesame Donuts. To be fair, there wasn’t much competition in this round of donut shops, but there were some tasty treats at Sesame. We only have a few more donut shops to try before we officially declare the best donut in Portland. Be sure to check out the last two rounds here and here.